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Together with Africa: President sends troops to Central Africa

October 20, 2011Area affected by the LRA

On October 12, President Obama sent a letter to Congress saying that he had deployed “the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda.” The letter continued, “During the next month, additional forces will deploy, including a second combat-equipped team and associated headquarters, communications, and logistics personnel. The total number of U.S. military personnel deploying for this mission is approximately 100. These forces will act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA.”  

His action was applauded by Human Rights Watch; an October 14 press release from Resolve, Enough Project, Invisible Children, and the Voice Project said in part, “A coalition of human rights and anti-genocide NGOs welcomed the announcement today by the White House that the United States will be deploying military advisers to areas of central Africa decimated by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) violence. The White House announced that the advisers will seek to assist ongoing regional efforts to protect civilians from rebel atrocities and to apprehend Joseph Kony and senior LRA commanders.

“‘By deploying these advisers, President Obama is showing decisive leadership to help regional governments finally bring an end to the LRA’s mass atrocities,’ said Paul Ronan, director of advocacy at Resolve. ‘These advisers can make a positive difference on the ground by keeping civilians safe and improving military operations to apprehend the LRA’s top commanders.’” [See addendum to press statement here.]

John Ashworth, an analyst who has worked for decades with the church in the region, particularly in South Sudan where LRA violence has been devastating, wrote, “While one welcomes increased international engagement on the LRA conflict, one wonders whether military escalation is the solution. Churches have consistently called for a negotiated solution, along with increased protection and humanitarian assistance for the affected population.”

In September 2010, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and Mennonite Central Committee hosted representatives of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative from Uganda, who came to Washington, D.C. to present recommendations from religious and community leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, and Uganda as the administration’s LRA strategy was being developed.

They were very clear in their rejection of military operations against 200-300 LRA combatants across four countries and they stressed the importance of creating an environment conducive for effective peace talks, as well as the need to investigate the supply lines to the LRA.

According to the religious leaders, the launch of Operation Lightning Thunder, a military offensive against the LRA, in December 2008 – January 2009, dealt a “devastating blow” to those who were still working to ensure the successful completion of peace talks at that time.  The regional conflict has roots and dynamics that go beyond the LRA issue to deeper historical grievances.

We support the engagement of the Obama administration in efforts to stop Joseph Kony and the LRA from marauding in the region. We are, however, very concerned about the involvement of AFRICOM and U.S. troops in this action and will urge the administration to take the religious leaders’ fears and recommendations seriously.

See also: Uganda: Faith leaders renew call for negotiations, NewsNotes, March-April 2011

Paul Ronan, Resolve’s director of advocacy, added the following to the October 14 press statement:

Clarifying facts about U.S. military advisers

The advisers will assist regional military forces, not directly participate in operations: These advisers will be deployed to Uganda, as well as areas of Congo, CAR, and South Sudan affected by LRA violence to assist and advise regional military forces, primarily the Ugandan military (UPDF). However, they will not be participating directly in operations against the LRA. They are combat-equipped, but will only use their weapons in self-defense.

Advisers will be tasked with improving regional efforts to protect civilians and encourage LRA defections, as well as apprehend senior LRA commanders: The Obama administration has been very clear that these advisers will not be solely focused on offensive operations to apprehend senior LRA commanders. They will also seek to improve regional coordination to protect civilians and encourage LRA fighters and commanders to defect peacefully. They are very aware of the lessons learned from Operation Lightning Thunder and the Christmas massacres. However, continued advocacy with the Obama administration will be crucial to reinforce the importance of civilian protection and defections in the coming months.

The U.S. military advisers will have a mandate to meet with civilians as well as military forces: The U.S. military advisers deployed to the field will be working primarily with regional military forces. However, U.S. officials have informed us that they will also be seeking to build relationships with civilians and civil society in LRA-affected areas to gain a more complete understanding of civilian protection challenges. They will also seek to monitor the human rights behavior of military forces in the field.

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